“I was born in the Waxahachie Texas Insane Asylum.”
Where can you possibly go after a street performer opens with those lines? It was so outlandish, I did an involuntary check of my wallet. Still there. Okay. I’m getting scammed, right? But, isn’t the actual truth always just a bit elusive anyway? And maybe the “actual truth” is never reached in a connect-the-dots sort of way — maybe it’s a ways down the mine shaft — maybe we have to work for it — maybe this guy is a prophet speaking in parables. Or maybe I’m going to end up wiring money to Nigeria. Mmmm . . . , but as my carny friends used to say as they enticed you into buying another set of rings for the ring toss — you can’t win if you don’t play.
Encamped in Council Bluffs for a couple of days, I meandered over the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge that snakes across the Missouri River into Omaha. Climbing out of the river bottom, I walked into Omaha’s Old Market area. It was already in the 90’s and the streets were empty at mid-morning. The lone exception to the smell of drying grass and the chirping of grasshoppers was the melancholy sound of a blues harmonica in the distance. Down at the end of the block, tucked well out of the sun, was my harpist as you can see in this picture when you look deep into the shadows.
I asked about his life. “I was born in the Waxahachie Texas Insane Asylum,” is how he began his story. He explained that his mom was 31 miles from the “black hospital” in Dallas, she was ready to deliver, and had no medical facility that would accept her. As a result, the insane asylum was his birth place, he explained with an infectious laugh. “I’ve seen the birth certificate,” he assured me.
He was born James Ronald Alexander. People call him Ron. He was the oldest of three boys and lived a life marred by racism. He told stories of education without books, violence in the classroom perpetrated by teachers, white men throwing bricks at him and his brothers, and being forced to attend a “school for the retarded.” He painted his formative years as not too formative.
This story was related by a master story-teller. His tones and vocabulary ranged from Southern Preacher to College Professor. He was a modern-day bard. I could barely hang onto one thread when he was off and running with a second thread. He was amazingly brilliant.
I kept waiting for the hook. Was there a mother with cancer needing just a few dollars for chemo? Was he just short of gas on his way to be with his children in Colorado? Would another “tourist” soon appear who would accidentally nudge me and kindly lift the burden of any items I carried in my pockets?
And then he played for me.
Starting with a slow rendition of Amazing Grace that echoed back and forth on the empty market street leaving me mourning every sadness I’d ever experienced, he paused, took a breath, knew he had me, and then he really played. Amazing Grace was still somewhere in the cascade of notes, which he would remind me by playing a short familiar riff, then off into the stratosphere he would go. As he weaved his way around the spiritual, he transformed the funeral tones into a fist in the air in defiance. And by the time he was finished, the cheers, the stomping, and the whistling from the suddenly appearing crowd brought me back to the present.
He goes by Dr. Spit. His band is the Blues Mechanics. Here’s a site for one of the many youtube videos of him performing in clubs around Omaha: [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-uJ7a4QkETk]. Why he was playing for change on a street corner in the Old Market is a mystery to me. But playing he was.
And, by the way, in digging around some archives for the town of Waxahachie, I found that Waxahachie was all about cotton and had a large slave population back in the day. After the Civil War, Jim Crow laws were the norm. Additionally, I found this: “The town’s first hospital built expressly for that purpose opened in March 1912. . . . The three-story brick structure . . . was known as the Waxahachie Sanatorium . . . . Dr. Wallace opened a hospital for blacks by 1948 at 438 E. Main Street.” [http://www.waxahachie.com/images/HistPresPDFS/HistoricResource1985Complete.pdf].
So, would you like to buy three more rings for the ring toss?